Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in China
Housing and Site Location
Volunteer sites in China are located from within Chengdu, where the Peace Corps office is located, to up to 1,200 kilometers (744 miles) away. Many Volunteers live on the campus of the college/university to which they are assigned and the school provides housing. All sites have hot water heaters for showering. However, in the winter, there is an occasional water shortage when water may not be available for hours at a time. Electricity is fairly constant, but power failures do occur, especially in winter. Volunteers live in local faculty housing or in apartments. These residences have a living room, a bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen, and sometimes a study.
Living and Leave Allowances and Money Management
All Volunteers will receive a living allowance that is designed to allow Volunteers to live modestly by the standards of the people they serve, yet not in a manner that would endanger their health or safety. The current monthly living allowance is 1,410 yuan (equivalent to about $196), which is paid monthly.
The living allowance is intended to cover the purchase of food, replacement clothing, local entertainment and travel, and other incidental expenses. You also receive the equivalent of $24 per month for leave allowance which is paid on the same schedule as the living allowance. You will be separately reimbursed for official travel (Peace Corps conferences, medical checkups, etc.). As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you are not allowed to accept any other paying positions during your term, nor can you accept bonus payments from schools or other amounts from individuals or institutions. Any secondary projects such as tutoring or giving lectures must be done without compensation.
A debit card is extremely useful to have in China. A debit card tied to a U.S. account is the easiest way to receive money from the U.S. Amounts can be deposited into the account in the U.S. and you can then withdraw the funds directly in local currency at your site. Credit cards are rarely accepted in many parts of China, but can be of use for travel while on leave.
Food and Diet
Chinese food varies greatly from the Cantonese-style food that is typically found in major cities in the United States. Sichuan, Chongqing and Guizhou dishes are much spicier and may take some getting used to, though mild dishes are also available. Gansu dishes are more plain-flavored.
The staple in Sichuan, Chongqing, and Guizhou is rice. Pork is also served at almost every meal. Although vegetables abound, eating in restaurants can be difficult for vegetarians because meat is often mixed in with dishes featuring tofu or vegetables. The staple in Gansu is noodles, and beef and mutton are the major meats. Sichuan and Chongqing dishes also tend to be oily. Cooking your own food is cheaper and healthier than eating in restaurants. Every Volunteer in China has access to a kitchen with a refrigerator and a stovetop.
A central ingredient in Chinese cooking is monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG. MSG is used to enhance flavor. While MSG has a negative reputation in America, most people can eat it without negative effects. Some people, however, experience moderate to severe allergic reactions, and people with hypertension should not consume excessive amounts. A person with a known allergy to this compound should not accept service in China.
Daily travel in many parts of China, including many, but not all, of the areas where Volunteers serve, is often by bicycle. Although Peace Corps/China does not provide bicycles, many Volunteers use them as their regular means of transportation. The Peace Corps requires every Volunteer to wear a bicycle helmet and will issue one if needed. You are not allowed to drive any motorized vehicle during your service in China or when you travel to other countries where there is a Peace Corps program. You are not allowed to ride on the back of motorcycles.
Buses and minibuses are also a common form of transportation, and bus service is available within and among all cities and small towns. Bus transportation, due to the poor condition of some roads, lack of regular vehicle maintenance, and schedule changes, is not always reliable, so contingency planning is important. Taxi service via cars is available in every city.
Long-distance travel occurs by air or by train. Although there is regular air service to most cities in China, official travel is almost always by train. Train service is reliable and there are sleeper car options for overnight trips.
Geography and Climate
China is subject to extremes in weather, from bitterly cold to unbearably hot. All Volunteer sites are cold in the winter, and several weeks of sustained temperatures in the 32- to 38degree Fahrenheit range can be uncomfortable for Americans used to central heating. Although heat is provided, rooms may still be cooler than some people would prefer. Also, Chinese generally believe that artificial heat and closed-in areas are unhealthy. Be prepared to wear several layers of clothing, especially when away from your residence (including when you are teaching). Summers in western China, on the other hand, can be hot and extremely humid, with temperatures reaching into the 90s for many days. Most Volunteers’ residential apartments have air-conditioners and most classrooms have electric fans, but the heat can be challenging for some people.
The Chinese are generally friendly and pleasant people, but it is sometimes difficult for foreigners to integrate into Chinese society. Until fairly recently, social contact between Chinese and most foreigners was limited to business relationships. Despite the increased openness and greater opportunities for interaction it can still be very challenging to become friends with a Chinese person in a way that Americans typically define friendship. Intimate relationships between Chinese and foreigners, depending on the nature of the relationship, the location, and the parties involved, can be sensitive and potentially controversial.
Life in western China is generally much slower than life in the United States. Current Volunteers recommend taking the initiative in joining activities outside of work, such as learning Chinese calligraphy, kung fu, mah-jongg, or go (weiqi); joining a sports club; or inviting friends and colleagues to go out for karaoke. Your Volunteer experience will be much richer and fulfilling if you readily look for cultural-sharing opportunities at site.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
Great importance is likely to be attached to neatness and proper dress, particularly in professional fields. Volunteers should dress suitably both on and off the job and respect host country and community attitudes toward personal appearance. Based on accepted norms for teachers in China, Peace Corps/China has adopted the following dress and appearance code for Volunteers, which is required during pre-service training, teaching time, office hours, important social activities, and while visiting the Peace Corps office in Chengdu. When participating in athletic activities, you are encouraged to wear modest sports clothes.
Appropriate dress includes collared shirts (not T-shirts) and pants for men (short-sleeve shirts are recommended); blouses, knee-length skirts, dresses, or dress slacks for women; and sturdy sandals or closed shoes (not rubber thongs). Additionally, no hats should be worn during sessions or while teaching; no earrings for men and only one earring in each lobe for women; no body piercings for men or women; and any tattoos must be kept covered at all times. Male teachers are expected to have neat hair. Thus, short haircuts that are neat and well-kept are strongly recommended.
Short-shorts, revealing clothing, military-style clothing, spaghetti straps, or flip flops should never be worn. Walking shorts (knee length) or culottes, clean jeans and T-shirts, and sandals are acceptable casual dress.
Peace Corps/China has a policy regarding the use of alcohol by Volunteers and staff. That policy requires moderation in consumption and holds Volunteers and staff responsible for behavior that could harm the reputation of the Peace Corps, disrespect local cultural traditions, or compromise the personal health and safety of Volunteers or staff. Should you have personal concerns about the issue of alcohol use and your interest in being assigned as a Volunteer to the China, please feel free to discuss this with your program manager or the Peace Corps medical officer Volunteers and trainees who create their own websites, or post information to websites that have been created and maintained by others, should be reminded that (unless password-protected) any information posted on the Internet can probably be accessed by the general public, even if that is not intended. They are responsible for discussing the content in advance with the country director to ensure that the material is suitable and complies with general guidelines as well any country-specific guidance. Volunteers and trainees are responsible for ensuring that their IT use meets Peace Corps general guidelines.
Volunteers are required to take extreme care in or avoid taking photographs of what are clearly or could be perceived as sensitive areas, including but not limited to military installations, government buildings, police stations, airports, and airplanes. If you are unsure, it is safer to refrain from taking the photograph.
Becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most China Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in China. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
Serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer may be the most rewarding thing you do in your life, and living in China is likely to be an extraordinary experience. But many Westerners find that they have to adjust to living in China, and that day-to-day life here presents some challenges.
Not feeling accepted by Chinese is a common experience. Staring, name-calling (e.g., waiguoren or laowai), and seemingly impolite shouts of “Hello!” followed by giggling are all things you may face on a daily basis. This is by no means considered acceptable behavior by most Chinese, but at times it may seem that way. Although staring is unnerving to most Americans, it is not meant to be offensive. In China, it is okay to stare intensely at anything or anyone. This can be a source of frustration and even friction as you begin to feel more integrated into Chinese culture. You may always stand out in a crowd, so you will have little of the anonymity you might get in other places where you are unknown. You might be asked very personal questions (e.g., about your age, weight, or income) by Chinese, but that is a way for them to show a friendly interest in you. The American desire for privacy is not always understood and therefore not often honored. At some campuses, officials have keys to on-campus housing and may feel free to enter your apartment to check on things while you are out.
Casual dating is not common and is generally discouraged. High school students are forbidden to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, and relationships between college students are everyone’s business. Serious dating is bound to be noticed because of the general lack of privacy. Gaining a bad reputation in China is not desirable, and a Westerner who wants to date a Chinese must realize that such dating may be a delicate matter for the Chinese person involved.
Volunteers may also become frustrated with aspects of Chinese cities such as a seeming lack of traffic regulations, restrooms and other public facilities that do not meet American standards of cleanliness, and a general lack of building and equipment maintenance.